Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

PUBLISHED: 12:22 22 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:36 20 February 2013

Lord Leicester The Beauchamp Chapel c.1875.  The tomb monument of Robert and Lettice Dudley is on the wall on the left

Lord Leicester The Beauchamp Chapel c.1875. The tomb monument of Robert and Lettice Dudley is on the wall on the left

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was a dashing Elizabethan blade who enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in Tudor Warwickshire, says Jeff Watkin

What links Kenilworth Castle to the Lord Leycester Hospital and St Marys Church in Warwick? The answer is that they are all associated with Robert Dudley, the ambitious courtier who Queen Elizabeth I made Earl of Leicester. Their close possibly romantic relationship has attracted the attention of writers and artists since Sir Walter Scott published his historical romance Kenilworth in 1821.

More recently they have featured in a number of films and television series. The real Robert Dudley was every bit as flamboyant as his fictional representations. His dark good looks (he was nicknamed The Gypsy), captivated the young Queen Elizabeth. Until the scandal surrounding the mysterious death of his first wife, Amy Robsart, it had even seemed likely that they would eventually marry. Elizabeth chose instead to adopt the role of The Virgin Queen, while he became a leading figure in Elizabethan England.

Thanks to Queen Elizabeths generosity he became a major landowner in the Midlands. From the 1560s, Robert and his brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick, built up a cluster of estates around the towns of Kenilworth and Warwick. The castle at Kenilworth was Roberts most important possession in Warwickshire. Traditionally belonging to the earls of Leicester, it was granted to him by the queen in 1563. Over the next decade Dudley turned the medieval castle into a magnificent Renaissance palace where Elizabeth might stay during her summer progresses. Dudley spent lavishly, adding new buildings, and laying out what a contemporary described as a beautiful garden inspired by Renaissance gardens in France and Italy.

This great residence was the scene for one of the most celebrated festivals of Elizabethan England: the Princelye pleasures of July 1575. During the queens 19 days stay, Dudley provided entertainments including deer hunting, bear baiting, music, masques, plays and fireworks. It has been suggested that the young William Shakespeare came to see the events and remembered them when he wrote of enchantment and marvellous creatures in A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Although Kenilworth was the main location for Robert Dudleys building works, the county town of Warwick was at the heart of the Dudley family claim to be great lords. Robert was keen to assert that his family were rightful heirs to the medieval earls of Warwick. When he was invested with the Order of St Michael, he made sure the ceremony took place in St Marys Church in Warwick in September 1571.

The investiture was spectacular, as is clear from the vivid account in the towns records, the Black Book of Warwick. Dudley was magnificently apparelled all in white and the interior of the church was lavishly decorated with wall hangings, coats of arms and fine carpets. The same visit also resulted in Dudley choosing to found in Warwick the Lord Leycester Hospital for the poor.

A year later, in 1572, Elizabeth herself came to Warwick, staying in the castle. The Black Book provides a lively description of a fireworks display laid on for the queen. This took the form of a mock battle between two timber and canvas forts, with fireworks casting forth many flashes and flames. Unfortunately one ball of fire fell on a house at the end of the bridge, destroying the building and its contents. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt and the queen recompensed the couple whose house was burnt down.

On his death in 1588, Robert Dudley was buried in the Beauchamp Chapel in St Marys Church in Warwick.

Today, there is still much to see for the visitor wishing to explore Robert Dudleys Warwickshire. The castle at Kenilworth is an imposing ruin of mellow red sandstone managed by English Heritage, which has recently installed a display about Robert Dudley and recreated the garden used by Queen Elizabeth in 1575.

In Warwick, the Lord Leycester Hospital still provides accommodation for retired servicemen in the picturesque cluster of timber-framed buildings. Warwick Castle can be seen to advantage from the road bridge over the Avon.

The church of St Mary is much altered since Elizabethan times because of rebuilding after the great fire of Warwick in 1694. The Beauchamp Chapel, though, survived largely unscathed and the tomb of Robert and Lettice Dudley can still be seen.

Jeff Watkin is the Heritage and Arts Manager at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum

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